The Town is Shaun Prescott’s full-length fiction debut and the sophomore novel from The Lifted Brow – the avant-garde Australian literary mag that, since moving into trade publishing last year, has championed writers whose ideas and execution run against the grain of commercial literary trends. Take this book: a deep dive into weirdness that reads like a blend of Donald Horne and García Márquez – although it contains little of the magic realist’s joie de vivre. Call it magical fatalism.
Small towns to the central-west of New South Wales are disappearing. Our unnamed narrator arrives in an unnamed and yet-to-disappear town, with a mission to write a book about the mystery. That’s about the extent of the plot, but that’s easily excused because plot is beside the point here – nothing happens, in the same way that nothing much happens in life.
Borgesian surrealism butts up against modernist drudgery; our narrator takes a job at Woolworths, rides a bus nobody ever boards, drinks in a hotel that has no patrons, is menaced by a belligerent local with a shifting identity and befriends a community radio host who plays uncategorisable music sent to her anonymously via cassette recording. With each new character, we get a vignette, a character sketch, which collectively make up a sociological map of the Australian everytown.
It’s here, in the minutiae, that The Town’s charms come to light. The narrator, prim and resigned, elucidates the corners of rural life: loneliness, parochialism, the ennui of unemployment, the capacity for bong-smoke to elevate rock music to high art. It’s a book to be enjoyed in the same way Murakami is – a surrender to the calm, meditative monotony that the narrative hinges on.
It’s not perfect. It takes mastery to write about stasis and boredom and remain consistently compelling, and this doesn’t quite get there. At times the mood is broken by a runaway metaphor – a long tract deals with a collective amnesia woven of colonial guilt, while the phenomenon of disappearing towns, hinted at by the young drifting towards the city, is simultaneously played as both allegory and deus ex machina.
And while the reading public deserves a moratorium on meta-fiction about young men struggling to write books, The Town is forgiven. Prescott’s narrative gamble pays off, providing the reader with a gentle, if gnawing, safari of the existential dread on which Australia is built. ZC
Brow Books, 264pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 12, 2017 as "Shaun Prescott, The Town". Subscribe here.